Chaotic and Calm in Conor Donohue’s Let Love Contaminate
By Ashton Mullinax
Ever wondered about that thing inside you? You know, the one that drives you to utter and absolute recklessness? You know, that electric thing—the one that makes you want to revel in the chaotic for but a moment or two, only to have you later retreat back into normalcy, whimpering while you try to gather what’s left of your remaining serotonin on the way back home. Conor Donohue has certainly pondered about the thing, so much so that he expanded this question over a rollicking and inquisitive album. Let Love Contaminate features a spread of songs that orbit between the extremes of chaotic and calm, while lyrics grapple with everything along this spectrum of human experience: love, depression, drug use, alcoholism, you name it.
Donohue is originally from Long Island, though that’s not something you’d necessarily glean from the rambling Southern garage-rock that is paramount throughout the album. Rather, it functions as an album that is fundamentally rooted in Charleston and the gritty folk that is inherent in much of the city’s sound. Coupled with a move to New Orleans that provided Let Love Contaminate with its debaucherous authority, the album spans incidents of wild nightlife and coming to reconcile this with the domestic—a reconciliation that Donohue realized is both necessary and good, which he learned through finding love.
“New Orleans is a very celebratory city, but there’s a dark layer that comes with it. If you work at a bar, you get off at 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 am, and then you go out for a couple of drinks and then next thing you know the sun is coming up. It’s easy to get caught up in that cycle, so the album just kind of reflects on that. My first couple of years here were much more along those lines, and then I fell in love and started taking care of myself. I just started to really work on my depression, made sure I was doing yoga and meditating more. But sometimes it is just fun to get weird and stay out.”
On tracks like “Hedonist Glow,” Donohue chronicles this realization of the excess and detriment that often accompanies unrestrained “nightlife novelty,” as he dubs it. He furthers this idea over a languorous melody, singing “paranoia with a touch of the blues / is wearing me down today / that’s not anything new.” The track is a refreshing slow-down on the album, reflecting on the chaos posited throughout the surrounding songs and ultimately acting as a microcosm of the reflection Donohue found himself doing after reveling in a few years of New Orleans indulgence.
The writing on the album is largely shaped through Donohue’s respective experiences, as he describes it being premised in “going through my own personal struggles, dealing with that, and coming to terms with it.” However, the musical elements and production on Let Love Contaminate somewhat delineate from the realm of personal into the realm of mere technicality and experimentation. As a former jazz study major at the College of Charleston, Donohue explains his pointed interest in the craft that underlies his favorite music.
“I was always fascinated by theory—taking music apart and putting it back together and learning other people’s songs, whether it be the Beatles or Bowie. Seeing what they do with weird chord changes and understanding where they’re coming from, that’s an inspiration for my music. But, as the older I get, I also see more power in playing just three chords, like Bill Carson.”
This inspiration that Donohue defines here largely parallels the inspiration behind the thematic elements of the album. Just as the highly experimental Beatles and Bowie fascinate him, so does the highly innovative and tumultuous New Orleans lifestyle. And as he matures into a lifestyle that is less chaotic and leans toward a calming simplicity, so does his fascination with simpler chord arrangements. On Let Love Contaminate, all of his interests culminate into a cataclysmic work that struggles with both self-effacement and beauty-realized, introduced through distinctive lyrics, cemented through sound.
For an album that encompasses the likes of depression and drug abuse, it wouldn’t be unusual to expect melodies of the macabre sort. Nonetheless, this is not the case for the majority of the work. “Conversations” speaks to the complexity of finding happiness through both love and hedonistic means, Donohue singing, “these sunsets and drugs don’t ever last / but we seek them anyway,” along with a jovial and dance-inspiring guitar and percussion. While he admits that he’s caught up “in a conversation I don’t ever want to leave,” the melody suggests if the conversation is about love, then it isn’t one that must end. If it’s about “the bars full of smoke and make-believe,” however, then the joyful melody juxtaposes the dark one-half of the dualism that constitutes this conversation.
Let Love Contaminate is rife with contradictory lyricism and sound that heightens the intricacy of the album. Evidenced in “Milk, Blood, and Traffic Signs,” the song begins with steady drums and breezy guitar, leaving you entirely unprepared for the opening lyrics: “hyenas are having hysterical fits outside your window / they ask for your name before they rip off your face and gnaw at your bones.” This reads as a metaphor for depression, masked by drug-abuse—the bloodthirsty hyenas wait too closely, ready at any minute to destroy the self, much like one’s own deteriorating mental health. And as for the drugs, they’d make any wicked situation feel all right, exactly how the melody euphemizes the hyenas. Donohue attributes his ability to write within more lurid veins to Tom Waits. Because of this inspiration, he says, “Lyrically I’ve always leaned toward the darker, more underbelly side of writing, so I like digging into the underbelly of everything, especially New Orleans.”
The album feels a lot like Donohue’s continual definition and redefinition of himself in his romp throughout the Big Easy. He relies on his adept lyricism as well as deftness in music theory, but also on a central group of musicians. Recorded in Charleston and produced by Andy Dixon, Let Love Contaminate features the likes of Joel Hamilton, Tyler Ross, George Baerreis, Lindsay Holler, Ron Wiltrout, and Jordan Igoe. Donohue has proven that the entirely solo-creative process can be just boring, if not futile in establishing one’s own broader creative process.
“I constantly want to be learning. I constantly want to be listening to different musicians and have different influences, and to be playing with different people too. You learn so much when you enter a room with a whole new crew of musicians. And you learn a lot about yourself, especially if somebody is playing your song. I was blessed with having the best band I could possibly imagine in Charleston, and then getting to New Orleans I had to work to find people I really connected with. But then I learned that a connection might not happen right away, and then I learned to communicate better and that alone made me a better musician.”
Check out all the fervor of Donohue’s New Orleans decadence rooted in Charleston’s musical renderings when Let Love Contaminate releases on April 12th. You can find the album on Apple Music, Spotify, SoundCloud, and bandcamp, and you can come to see Donohue in action at The Royal American on April 19th with Punks & Snakes and Carson/Ross to celebrate the album release.